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Women in Business – How Times Have Changed

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Women in Business – How Times Have Changed

With International Women’s Day just gone by, I’ve been pondering how times have changed.

I’ve also been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, where she talks about the importance of women stepping up into leadership roles, the challenges and how times have changed in her lifetime.

When I started my career as a junior accountant for an accounting firm in the city, I was the only female on staff who wasn’t a secretary or the receptionist. At university, there were just four women in a class of a few hundred.

It was a man’s world, without a doubt.

The boss I worked for and the young men I worked with were fabulous, inviting me to join them for Friday night drinks in the pub after work and including me as though I was one of the boys. Whilst I was very naïve, I learned to be one of the boys and never once considered their actions in any way derogatory, demeaning or sexually harassing. I considered myself very lucky to be included and treated as an equal.

I knew the ‘old boys’ network was strong, and I had my fair share of bullying in the office, but I didn’t realise that this wasn’t normal. When I felt that I wasn’t being appreciated, I sought out a new job and left.

There weren’t any women’s groups, at least not that I was aware of.

You were on your own, making your own decisions without a mentor to guide your way or even knowing other women with whom to confide and seek counsel from.

Six years ago I was invited as a guest lecturer at both Monash and Swinburne Universities in Melbourne and was delighted to see the number of women in the classes. Whilst I was aware that more women were taking accounting and commerce degrees, I hadn’t seen just how many more.

The tables have well and truly turned with the women outnumbering the men in accounting degrees.

I’ve also seen a major shift in the clients I’ve worked with.

In my early career, the only business owners who were women were working jointly in the business with their husbands. The men ran the business, the women usually providing a supportive, administrative role.

Fast forward to the past ten years, and again the tables have turned, and there are many businesses 100% owned and run by women.

But like Sheryl Sandberg, I look at the bigger companies, at public service and government and the number of women is well under 50% and I think that whilst we’ve come a long way, there’s still a lot of work to be done to get an equal representation.

The women’s, potentially equivalent, of the ‘old boys’ network.

There are now a plethora of women’s business groups and enterprises that are actively seeking women mentors to provide the support to younger women, providing a different but potentially equivalent of the ‘old boys’ network.

Networking with other women in business groups and seeking mentoring provides that much needed support and encouragement particularly around the balancing of career/business and family life.

I chose not to have a family so as to focus on my career. Many of my colleagues attempted to have the family and the career only to find at some point that in order to provide the ‘work/life balance’ the career needed to take a downgrade.

These highly intelligent women who tried their best only to burn out, not get the promotions they felt they deserved and ultimately being forced to make a choice which meant not taking the promotions, or worse, not even applying for them.

Another big shift I’ve seen is that women are more likely to ask for help today. In the past, we didn’t ask; we sought to solve the issues, challenges or problems ourselves believing that to ask for help was a sign of weakness.

But one thing that hasn’t changed.

For me at least, was mentioned at a Women Chiefs of Enterprise (WCEI) function for International Women’s Day:

And that is, that I don’t feel safe walking around after dark.

When I started work as a junior, taking university classes in the evenings and coming home late at night, I worried that if anything happened to me walking home on a Friday night (yes, I had Friday night classes), no one would miss me until I didn’t show up for work the following Monday. When a woman was raped on a Saturday afternoon in a nearby station, my fears escalated.

To this day, I pick and choose where I go of an evening if I’m going by myself.

So yes, times have changed considerably. And yet, in some ways they haven’t.

We still have a long way to go to gain the fairness and equality we desire.

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